The solution to our Climate Risk challenge is staring us in the face. It's the attention economy.
Do you feel like you're wasting a lot of your time? Hours of scrolling through infinite feeds sprinkled with outrageous headlines, mashing buttons like a dopamine-addicted lab rat. Repeatedly hooked by oft-subliminal clickbait and tempting offers, then reeled in like a sportfish.
I wonder how many of us feel satisfied amongst all that churn.
Framing the attention economy this way is not flattering and not wrong. But there's a radically different framing of our unprecedented attention economy that helps us solve our also-unprecedented Climate Risk challenge.
The power of the attention economy arises from its ability to direct a specific individual's attention toward a specific subject, repeatedly, remotely, automatically, and on a global scale. Whether the subject is a news topic, a product to buy, a game to play, a website to visit, or a potential trend or fashion, it is capable of focusing your attention on it.
The key principle behind the attention economy is this: we always choose from the options that come to mind.
Attention matters because what we pay attention to grows in importance in our minds, squeezing out other options. When deciding what to eat for lunch, or what movie to watch, or what sports team to cheer for, we are inherently biased by the set of options that come to mind at decision time. But our memories are lossy, we're often in a hurry, and most of us don't have a habit of finding more options.
So when our attention has been recently directed at a specific option, we tend to choose it more often. The result is behavior change when the option is new to us, or behavior reinforcement when the option is familiar. If the ability to direct attention with laser-like accuracy on a global scale is not power, I don't know what is.
Serious business like this deserves a closer look.
Put our attention economy under the microscope, and we see that it is composed of simple, easily accessed, and rewarding activities. Look at your phone. Swipe your finger. Tap this button. Smile, laugh, cringe, nod, or be outraged. Tweet your hot take. Open the package that appears on your doorstep. Repeat. Billions of people are making these choices every day with no end in sight. Being digital, all of this activity is recorded and measured.
When we put our Climate Risk challenge under the microscope, we see that it is composed of billions of people making hundreds of mediocre choices every day for decades. Drive the car, flip on a light, order in food, and so on. Of course, nobody thinks they are making poor choices; we don't measure the connection between our actions and their consequences, and so we can't see it. While each of our choices is familiar and produces immediate effects that are quite nice, the secondary effects have added up to a gnarly global challenge.
Notice how the two phenomena overlap. Our attention economy is a powerful engine for persuading billions of individuals to make trillions of specific choices that they otherwise wouldn't make. Our Climate Risk challenge is the sum of negative effects of trillions of choices by billions of individual people. The two are almost mirror images of each other.
As we know, any solution to our Climate Risk challenge will involve billions of people making a different set of daily choices than they do today. We also know that people probably won't start making different choices until their attention is drawn to a healthier set of options.
So, to solve our Climate Risk challenge, we can adapt the infrastructure of our attention economy to cause billions of people — one person at a time — to make choices that still feel nice but with fewer nasty secondary effects. Then, gradually, toward more choices that have clearly positive secondary effects. In short, we dig our way out of our hole as enthusiastically as we dug our way in.
By aiming the technology of our global attention economy at our global Climate Risk problem, we record and measure many more of our choices, good and bad. With the visibility of vastly better measurements, we gain the ability to intelligently manage our situation. How much are we each helping the cause? How much are we each harming the cause? When we know this, we can keep doing better.
Despite that the attention economy now causes billions of people to make choices that amplify our global Climate Risk, it also presents a right-sized and familiar solution to the problem. By deploying the technology of our attention economy against the challenge of global Climate Risk, we take a systematic and clear-headed approach to an otherwise overwhelming challenge.
Now, if you're jonesing for specifics, you're in the right place. I'll be following up with the next level of detail.